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Chinese newspaper repeats call for reporter’s release

Demetri Sevastopulo
A woman reads the New Express newspaper that on October 23, 2013 carried a full-page editorial with headline 'Please release our man.'
STR | AFP | Getty Images

A Chinese newspaper that took the unprecedented action of publicly calling on police to release a detained reporter has run a second front-page headline demanding his freedom.

New Express, a Guangdong-based newspaper, stunned experts on Wednesday with a front-page editorial under the headline "Please release him" in reference to its reporter, Chen Yongzhou. On Thursday, it published "Again please release him" in large Chinese characters across its front page.

(Read more: Free our reporter, China newspaper begs)

The paper says police from Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, detained Mr Chen last week for writing stories accusing Zoomlion, a big construction equipment company part owned by the Hunan government, of fraud. Zoomlion has previously denied the claims, but on Wednesday it declined to comment further.

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Changsha police said Mr Chen was being investigated for "damaging [the] commercial reputation" of a company without providing any detail.

The New Express action comes as China cracks down on press freedom and social media, but also as President Xi Jinping appears to be trying to stamp out corruption in the Communist party.

Maya Wang, a China expert at Human Rights Watch, said Mr Chen's detention "cast doubt" over the anti-graft efforts, but she added that it was possible that New Express was receiving support from officials in Beijing.

(Read more: China's corruption crackdown targets the holiday mooncake)

The fact that New Express ran a second front-page headline, she said, "might indicate that the paper had calculated that provincial and local government might not have wider support", giving it more latitude. She said another encouraging sign was that China's media regulator and the All-China Journalists Association had taken the unusual step of expressing concern about the case.

Mr Chen has received widespread support on Weibo – China's equivalent of Twitter – including from some state media. Xinhua, the official news agency, said the application of "damaging commercial reputation" was "controversial", and called on the police to "give more evidence or release him".

The story has received a lot of attention in other Chinese media. The Henan Commercial Daily, for example, published four pages, and ran a big headline across its front page saying "Pay attention to Chen Yongzhou".

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But while there were hints that New Express might be receiving some support from the central government, there were other signs that the party was worried about public campaigns spiraling out of control.

Propaganda officials on Wednesday told Southern Metropolis Daily, another Guangdong newspaper, not to run any news stories about the case, according to a person familiar with the instructions.

Southern Metropolis decided to circumvent the ban by running an editorial instead. Censorship officials objected, but underscoring the relatively liberal nature of media in Guangdong, it went ahead and published the piece with only minor changes, according to the person. In the editorial, it accused Changsha officials of abusing government power.

(Read more: China's factory sector may contract in October)

The battle between New Express and Zoomlion has also been proceeding in the courts. Mr Chen and the newspaper sued the company in August after a senior executive attacked the reporter on social media. On Wednesday, a Guangzhou court refused a request by Zoomlion to transfer the case to a court in Hunan.